If pages filled with searing accusations, hurtful gossip and plots to ruin reputations sound like the current script for a daytime drama, spend some time reading the pages of a teen ‘slam’ book and you’ll receive an eye-opening education. When she learned of such a notebook bearing cutting comments about her daughter and a few of her friends, Tisha J. of Yonkers was horrified. “I couldn’t believe the language and animosity. It made me sad to think that such young people were so bitter,” says Tisha.
Littered with anonymous obscenities, suggestive slang and strong feelings, books like the one Tisha and her daughter learned of, that are passed from teen to teen, are quickly becoming the preferred method of communication among teenagers — primarily girls. Laced with venom, they usually depict their authors’ opinions of a peer’s fashion sense, scholastic abilities, home life, or personality. Outwardly a slam book looks like an ordinary diary, spiral notebook or journal. Inside, its pages tell the tale of this trendy, vengeful and potentially dangerous teen phenomenon.
A few pages of an average slam book might describe a teen’s devotion to a member of the opposite sex, her plot to break up a friend’s relationship, or her jealousy about another friend’s lifestyle or abilities. A few more pages will offer notable insight into the relationships among adolescents, as well as some of their deepest and most powerful emotions.
The pros and cons of slamming
Educators are becoming keenly aware of the damaging effects of slam books. Jeff O’Donnell, principal of Ardsley Middle School, maintains a proactive approach to derogatory notes and slam books. “We do not tolerate lack of respect or any form of bullying in our school, and this is definitely bullying,” he says. When such notes are found, the staff requests that the parents of the student or students involved attend a meeting with guidance counselors, or, if necessary, with O’Donnell, in order to prevent further occurrences.
“It’s tough to be a teen today. We want all of our students to feel safe and respected without the hindrance of hurtful notes and books,” O’Donnell adds.
In addition to the emotional ramifications, the distraction of reading or adding an entry to a slam book affects students’ attention and their schoolwork. O’Donnell notes, “Although we can never completely prevent writing notes, we take measures to strongly discourage our students from doing so in order to keep the focus on respectful learning.”
According to some experts, however, there are also positive aspects to slam books. “This form of communication is not all negative,” says Tammy Fitzgerald, M.S.W., a therapist who works with families and groups. “There are children who take the opportunity to channel negative feelings they might otherwise demonstrate in a more aggressive manner.”
Some teens use slam books as a way to offer constructive advice to a peer, thereby learning how to express themselves and relate to their peers. “The anonymity of a slam book lets teens mildly suggest that a friend consider better hygiene practices or try a new hairstyle,” says Fitzgerald. Others find slam books an alternate form of emotional release to potentially dangerous physical demonstrations of their feelings.
Why a slam book?
Slam books fill a variety of needs for the teens who participate in writing them. A slamming teen may feel insecure socially or have low self-esteem. She may be unable to express a need for attention and guidance at home and may be trying to grab the attention of a peer or love interest. And some slam books are created simply to pass time in a ‘boring’ class, schedule weekend plans and parties, or commiserate with a lovelorn friend. They serve as a way for teens and tweens to connect with their peers.
Working with school counselors and fellow parents, Tisha discovered that the slam book that was written about her daughter was authored with the intention of expressing malice and anger resulting from unrequited love.
“We learned that some of her peers were upset because they found out that a boy wanted to ask her to a dance,” Tisha explains. “My daughter was clueless that he even liked her.”
The magnet pull of peers also draws girls to partake in slamming. Family counselor Marla Stein-Rothman, L.C.S.W., teaches the families she works with that adolescents may resort to this sort of communication to feel they ‘fit in’ and belong to a group. “Even if the group’s activities contradict their beliefs, teens will find themselves slamming friends or their parents because that’s what everyone else is doing,” she explains, and then adds: “Many kids see slam books as an avenue to express feelings they’re too afraid to verbalize.”
What does it say about your teen?
At first glimpse, a slam book seems to be a list of the flaws of an algebra teacher or the person sitting next to the teen in history class, but experts explain that it also divulges important insights about its author. Those who join their friends in slamming their peers may actually be expressing what they feel about themselves.
Says communication and personal lifestyle expert Leah Miller: “Teens often highlight the flaws in others that they subconsciously see in themselves.” Feeling uncomfortable in a body that’s continually changing and coursing with hormones, a teen may slam a classmate’s acne or jean size in order to feel better about herself. “By attacking someone’s choice of clothes or hairstyle, adolescents are actually saying they identify with the subject of their slam books,” says Stein-Rothman. And Miller adds: “Instead of working on ways to improve their self-esteem, teens resort to making others feel just as bad as they do.
“The self confidence and esteem of a teen or tween who learns they’ve become the unfortunate subject of slamming can suffer greatly,” continues Miller, who says she sympathizes with parents who have to help their children through this distressing situation. She suggests that reinforcing the theory that children who slam are often trying to make someone feel just as bad as they do provides a response to questions like: “What did I do to deserve this?” and “Why would someone write that about me?”
Additionally, helping a teen identify with and trust in her own strengths, gifts and talents bolsters her self-esteem and counters the devastation of being slammed. “Offering support and, in some cases, talking to a mental health expert or school counselor help a teen keep what’s written about her in perspective,” says Stein-Rothman.
Slam books seasoned with sugar
While most teens write words of hate for and jealousy of peers, a few try to use this method as a form of productive communication. When Jill Hader learned that her 13-year-old daughter was part of a ‘slam club’, she experienced a mix of curiosity and concern. Hearing her daughter and her friends chatting after school about the contents of their book, Jill took the opportunity to offer advice. “I explained how hurtful it would be for someone to read something mean or untrue about himself,” says the mom of three. “I also cautioned them that cruel intentions and spreading gossip are often reciprocated.”
Jill recognized that her teen looked forward to co-journaling her experiences and feelings with her closest friends, so she offered a few creative alternatives to the traditional slamming spirit. “I recommended that the girls try finding positive qualities about someone they’re inclined to slam,” says Hader.
How parents can help Talk with your child to help her identify why she feels inclined to trash a peer’s reputation, then offer alternatives to the mean spirit of slam books. Suggest your teen not name names or be negative about peers, parents and teachers. Help her find a way to remain positive about herself, her friends and peers to solve teen problems. Guide your teen to use slam books as a way to co-journal hopes and expectations instead of disdain and gossip. Whether your teen falls prey to a slam book or elects to profess her opinions in one, a realistic and proactive parental attitude will help channel her feelings productively.